Mozart, Janáček and Sullivan. An odd combination? Not for Charles Mackerras, the Australian conductor who specialised in the operas of all three of these composers. His pioneering research into forgotten repertoire and historical performance practice influenced a generation of listeners and performers.
Born in the United States and raised in Australia, Mackerras was expelled from school for neglecting his academic studies and sports in favour of music. At 16 years old, he enrolled at the State Conservatorium of Music in Sydney. At the age of just 18 he took his first professional post, as second oboist in the ABC Sydney Orchestra. But he had bigger ambitions in mind and would travel by boat to England to become a conductor. Not long after starting work in London, Mackerras won a British Council scholarship to study in Prague with conductor Václav Talich, where he heard the music of Leoš Janáček for the first time. He instantly fell in love with Janáček's operas, and spent a large part of his subsequent career promoting them around the world.
Listening to one of Mackerras's Mozart or Handel recordings you will immediately notice a historically informed approach which is fairly unusual for a conductor of his generation. Through careful research, Mackerras established a historically sensitive approach to Classical repertoire before 'period performance practice' became a mainstream activity. Such committed efforts led to long and successful associations with the English and Welsh National Opera companies, and with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Whereas many conductors of his generation were strict, authoritarian figures, Mackerras broke these mid-20th century stereotypes and would continue to experiment with scholarly discoveries into his 80s. He realised his ideas through gentle advocacy and meticulous preparation - an approach that was very effective, and left a compelling legacy of live and studio recordings.